My Product Management Backstory
"Tell me about yourself?"
If this was a product manager interview, you'd hear a shorter version of this.
Since we're not in an interview today, you can enjoy my PM backstory in full.
Here's how I ended up in product management:
It all started when I was born
Alright, that's an overstatement.
But my journey towards becoming a product manager did start with software.
I got my first PC in middle school. And it didn't take me long to go from playing games and chatting with classmates to being curious about software.
My early projects were simple:
- All kinds of IRC bots, skins, and plugins.
- Basic websites built with whatever builder was popular at the time.
- Custom maps and scripts for Counter-Strike, StrarCraft, and HoMM.
This looked promising enough for mom to send me to a programming school in my early teens. Kinda boring, but it got me interested in software development. I started taking part in programming competitions: individual (not too successfully) and team ones with my classmates (much better).
These middle school years led to a few things:
- I got a medal for our team's performance in a programming competition.
- I got interested in developing games, not just playing them.
- I got curious about Linux.
The competition should've been a sign for me to choose the management path over the software development path.
Well, here's the medal I got:
(Argh, I can't find it. But I'll find it and upload a photo, I promise.)
Truth be told, I did little to get it. We were a team of 3, and the software architects were two of my classmates, the smartest people I knew. I felt pretty dumb listening to them discuss the software challenges.
So for the most part, I was hanging around trying to be funny and occasionally telling them what I think they should do (they knew better not to listen to me).
A natural-born product manager.
But I went the software way, switched to Linux, and spent the next few years having fun with the kernel and the dependencies and writing a whole heap of various scripts, tools, and smaller games.
I wasn't qualified enough to meaningfully contribute to Linux projects, but I was technical enough to be daily driving Slackware, Gentoo, and Arch. So I stuck to it.
During my last year in school, I built a forum for my classmates to hang out in. This was before the social media boom, so a crude forum with little design powered by PHP looked fun enough for a dozen people to sign up.
It didn't last long, but I was quite proud.
It was time for college.
The early product experience
Going for a BSc in Computer Science wasn't a conscious decision on my part.
I did it for a few reasons:
- A few of my classmate friends applied for the same program.
- I liked spending time around computers and software.
- I was in the EU and eligible for free tuition and scholarship.
- My mom told me to do it, the winning argument.
Had I been more social, I could've picked something like BSc in Management instead. But I was a nerd, and most of my friends were nerds, so I ended up in CS.
And it was college where I built what I consider my first real products:
The first one was called Donate4Beer.
It was a website featuring the story of Captain Beerbreath, an action hero I sketched while being bored during lectures. The website had a PayPal button, and for a mere $5 donation, you would enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment and receive a sticker of Captain Beerbreath designed by me.
Sounds funny today, but I consider it one of my first products for two reasons:
- It had everything: design, implementation, marketing, monetization.
- And I actually got a few bucks out of it.
These kinds of websites were popular back then, so I'm sure I could've gotten more than that out of it had I done a better job at marketing. But it was something.
The second one was the ecommerce engine I built for my bachelor's thesis.
The topic of my thesis was "Ecommerce website security and vulnerabilities". As part of it, I had to design and build a fully-functional ecommerce system created with security in mind.
And I did. I built a full-blown shopping system from scratch in PHP and JS. It offered all of the core ecommerce features, such as product catalog and order management, basic checkout, customer management, and more.
It was specifically designed to be secure against the common web vulnerabilities found back then, like XSS, CSRF, and others. It doesn't sound like much in 2022, but back then self-hosted carts like PrestaShop and Magento were all the rage.
And while I didn't turn my thesis project into a full-blown shopping cart software business, I'm sure it had potential. At the very least, it did allow me to graduate with a top grade and finally get my Bachelor's degree in Computer Science.
Back then, I wasn't thinking about these things as products yet. Product management wasn't a thing for me, and I had little interest in the business aspects.
This changed a few years later.
Look mom I'm a software developer
My first job was as a software developer at a bank.
If we're being pedantic here, my first job was as an unskilled manual laborer at a construction site. It was back in school, courtesy of a friend. It was boring, exhausting, and didn't pay well. I didn't last long.
Now, I got my first proper job in college. That's when I got hired as a software developer at a bank. Straight out of my programming school!
Dream come true?
It paid well and it wasn't arduous. But it was about as boring as my first job. For the most part, I had to pull Progress 4GL reports. The original version of P4GL was released in 1981, and it wasn't a lot more exciting than that some 30 years later.
Boredom was one of the reasons I didn't last long as a developer back then.
As I would find out time and time again in the future, I just wasn't made for boring, monotonous work. (And if there's one thing you can't say about product management it's that it's boring. It's kind of the opposite, really.)
I liked creating stuff, but I wasn't exactly a fan of being a software developer.
The other reason was I didn't feel like combining work with studies. So I quit, vowing to get another job after I graduate. Mom wasn't happy, but c'est la vie.
I decided not to return to my bank job after I graduated. There had to be something more exciting! And when I didn't find it at home, I looked elsewhere.
My new plan was to move to Germany for good.
It was a great plan:
- I had studied German for 12 years by that point.
- I had a few online anarchist friends from Leipzig.
That's it, that was the plan. I'd get there and I'd figure something out.
So I got a huge travel bag off eBay, I'm sure it could easily fit two people. I packed most of my dearest belongings in it, including an LCD monitor and a disassembled desktop (just a motherboard and the peripherals), and boarded a bus to Leipzig with a few hundred euros in my pocket.
It's a fun side story for another time, but I spent the first month living in the back of an anarchist bar and later in a semi-abandoned house before I found a job.
Long story short, I got hired as a Junior Softwareentwickler in a travel software company. Now that I think of it, I got incredibly lucky. That really was a dream come true. The job paid well, and it was here where I learned the basics of SEO and SEM, Google Analytics, Adwords, and all kinds of other marketing-related things.
In my spare time, I was applying this knowledge to my personal projects.
Around that time I got interested in affiliate marketing. In the course of a few months, I built a bunch of affiliate websites aiming to monetize them via ads and affiliate sales. This taught me the basics of doing market research, picking the niche, coming up with brand names, and many other exciting things.
Well, I quickly learned that the affiliate marketing industry is a cutthroat business. You need more than the basics of SEO, marketing, and good intentions to come out on top.
I didn't get rich, but I learned a lot about creating real stuff.
From freelance to products
My plan to move to Germany for good didn't quite pan out.
Less than a year later, I burned out.
This time, the job wasn't the problem. I was the problem.
I was still a typical socially awkward nerd, incapable of building friendships. So I spent most of my time on the job or alone at home with my PC. Not a good way to live in a foreign country. After a while, I quit and booked the bus back home.
This experience took a toll on me, so I decided to take a break and regroup.
I had this one thought going through my mind:
I like to build things, but I don't enjoy being employed as a developer.
At that time, I didn't exactly know what to do with this thought.
Startups were all the rage in the US around that time, but not in Europe. My friends were all employed in traditional jobs, so I didn't have any other examples in front of me.
And besides, I had zero business experience and zero social skills. In what world would it make sense for me to not get a job and start my own startup?
Well, as I was pondering this, I came across an ex-classmate of mine. And he was looking in the opposite direction. He'd just spent a few years freelancing and was transitioning back into employment. And he had an unfinished freelance gig.
His gig? Building an ecommerce platform for a local pharmacy chain. Just what my bachelor's thesis was all about! It felt like an opportunity too good to miss.
A couple weeks later, I was officially a freelancer.
I thought I was perfectly suited for the job, and I was both right and wrong.
Tech-wise, it was a perfect match. The platform was running on PrestaShop, and I got used to it very quickly. For the next few months, I was doing everything: implemented designs, built custom features, did maintenance, worked on copy even, and basically did whatever else I was told to do.
But there was a catch.
You don't become a successful freelancer by simply being a good developer. You need more skills if you want to get paid fairly.
I knew a lot about ecommerce platforms, but I knew nothing about finances, managing projects, negotiating with clients, and actually getting paid. The gig was supposed to take a few weeks. Instead, it turned into months of me struggling with an increasingly larger project scope before I'd even seen the first paycheck.
A few months later, I bailed out of the project, and all I got was a lousy few hundred euros. Lesson learned: scope is life.
My freelancing experience wasn't great, but I got a few takeaways out of it:
For one, I enjoyed working in a dynamic environment. I didn't get paid much, but the process was fun. Definitely more exciting than my official developer jobs.
And I wasn't just a developer either, I had to work on a whole bunch of things:
- Design and implement a feature? Sure.
- Make the design more user-friendly somehow? I'll see what I can do.
- Tweak the copy a little? Why not.
I didn't know what the next day would bring, and that was refreshing.
Secondly, it made me start thinking in terms of products, not just software:
- The platform I was working on was modular.
- I was building features that could be their own modules.
- You could buy and sell modules on third-party marketplaces.
So why not package my features as modules and sell them to other developers? There were no NDAs, and the client couldn't care less about any of this anyway.
It sounds a bit silly today, but this was before the great SaaSification of the web. Website builders and ecommerce platforms like Wix and Shopify were around, but they weren't public yet. The SaaS industry was still in its infancy, and there were plenty of opportunities for non-SaaS products like the ones I was building.
I focused on pursuing this idea. First, I repackaged some of my code and published it on code marketplaces. It took me a few days to get to the first sale. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was passive income.
This early success prompted me to focus more on researching the market and building extensions I thought were promising for the popular ecommerce platforms. Soon enough, it turned into a steady income stream.
At that point, I stopped being a freelancer and became a creator.
But there was another detour I'd take on my road to product management.
The entrepreneurship experience
That was just the start, though. I didn't stop there.
A steady stream of income was nice, but it wasn't that large. Besides, I was taking custom development projects on the side, and that was exhausting.
I still had little people or project skills, so when it came to custom projects I was doing a lot of work for not a lot of money. And I had to hunt that money down.
Doing work for others wasn't it. Negotiating contract terms, hunting for invoice payments, all that garbage. Besides, it meant working on things I didn't believe in.
What I truly enjoyed was building my own stuff. Something I believed in that other people liked. Something that provided value to others. It felt empowering.
Well, what if I built a product successful enough to become a profitable business that generated money indefinitely, all by itself? I'd just sit back and watch.
That's when I first started in business terms, not just in product terms.
(Little did I know that business ain't like that. That running a business takes more time and effort than being a freelancer, not less. Well, I'd learn it soon enough.)
And I soon saw my first business opportunity.
See, the ecommerce extension marketplaces weren't exactly great back then. The user experience was mediocre and the developer fees were higher than I thought were justifiable.
Surely I could build a better one and earn my living by charging sensible fees?
There were two glaring problems with this idea:
- I didn't do a great job researching the market.
- And the plan was "I'll build it and they will
Writing code was still the main thing I knew, so it was a software-heavy plan. Marketing? Revenue models? Eh, I'll figure it out.
I spent the next few months writing the engine to power my Amazon for plugins. Then some more time doing the design, brainstorming the name, putting together the brand. Then populating the platform with scraped content. Then more things.
Then I launched it.
And no one came.
I could write a book on all the things I've learned from this experience, but the short takeaway is that "build it and they will come" is a lie. They won't come.
There was an unexpected side effect of my business flopping, though:
I failed at most things except for the software itself. The two-sided marketplace engine I built to power my platform turned out pretty decent. I published it as an extension, and it quickly became one of the most popular marketplace modules.
And so I took that and turned it into my next business. MultiMerch Marketplace became multi-vendor marketplace software for two-sided marketplace platforms.
This time, I did a better job. The next couple years taught me everything I know about business and product management, including:
- The complete product development lifecycle.
- Hiring people and managing product teams.
- Everything about sales, marketing, and finances.
- ...and so much more.
If it wasn't for this experience, I'd stay a product-minded developer at best.
Running my own business turned me into an entrepreneurial product manager.
Becoming the Product Manager
I had to wind the business down eventually.
It's yet another story for another time, but the main reason was our move upmarket where there was no product-market fit. I'll tell this one later.
There was a way to keep going by transforming the business into an agency, but that was a path I didn't want to take. I was always product-first, and I wanted to focus on building the things we believed in. Turning into an agency wasn't the way.
So I've made the decision to wind the business down. And since I was quite burned out and had no other immediate business plans, I had to get my first job in years.
Which job was I best suited for?
I knew two things about myself by that point:
- I did not like the idea of writing code for a living. I was never great at it, and the years spent managing a business certainly didn't make me a better developer.
- But I loved building great products. And I enjoyed the things that are part of it: from ideation to implementation, from development to sales and marketing.
This made product management sound like the perfect job for me. As a product manager, you get to wear many hats and get shit done. And I loved doing both.
The story of transitioning from being an entrepreneur at heart to being employed is, you guessed it right, the story for another time.
It sure as hell wasn't easy, but it's the best thing you can do as a small business owner when you stop believing in your business. Knowing when to stop is crucial.
And that's how I ended up in product management, kids.